Ben SprattComment

THE NIGHT CLINT DEMPSEY RIPPED UP THE RULEBOOK

Ben SprattComment
THE NIGHT CLINT DEMPSEY RIPPED UP THE RULEBOOK

Red cards hold a strange satisfaction for football fans, regardless of any emotional investment in the incident itself. Of course, every dismissal is celebrated most fervently by opposition supporters, but, at the top level, their jeers are echoed in pubs, bars and living rooms around the world. While this beautiful game welcomes moments of genius, there's no doubt that hilarious handballs, pathetic punches and defiant disputes are all instantly more memorable than dozens of tap-ins and scuffed penalties.

These red cards seem to become more exciting still when sides see multiple players sent off. Whether because the first ejection encourages chaos, or that struggling squads have more than one combustible individual; either way, it can be joyful to watch.

Every avid follower of a football team will have their own recollections. As a Newcastle United fan, I, like so many others, have little difficulty calling to mind the events of April 2, 2005. Flicking on the television to check the score with 10 minutes remaining of a now infamous home fixture with Aston Villa - the day after Alan Shearer had signed up for another year - Sky Sports' Soccer Saturday made for ugly viewing.

The vidiprinter confirming a third unanswered Villa goal, attention in the studio quickly turned back to St James' Park as Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer fought on the pitch, reducing the home side to eight men. In such circumstances, one might have expected the first red card recipient to be written out of the script, amid the bafflement of his teammates’ brawl. However, Steven Taylor took his fair share of the ridicule that followed, the Geordie defender’s marching orders coming after he blatantly handled on the line before comically feigning injury. All three players would receive England call-ups at various stages of their careers, but they will more likely be remembered for their actions on that particular afternoon.

Just over nine years later, I watched from the Anfield Road End, a couple of rows below a banner proudly bearing the message "Pardew is a c*nt", as Newcastle closed out another miserable campaign against title-chasing Liverpool. With Brendan Rodgers' men fighting back from a goal down to win 2-1 (missing out on the title, however, thanks to Manchester City’s victory over West Ham), Shola Ameobi was, apparently, shown a red card for daring referee Phil Dowd to do just that. The official line was dissent. "I know Shola, and he doesn't swear," protested a confused Alan Pardew. A cult hero's last act for the club - what a way to go.

Yet there was still time for Paul Dummett to get in on the act, waving a leg in the general direction of Luis Suarez and following his team-mate down the tunnel. As if that wasn't enough, with the World Cup just weeks away, Uruguayan fans soon tracked Dummett down on social media and their heated tweets promised the Wales international, among other things, "a bullet in the head".

However, while Taylor, Bowyer, Dyer, Ameobi and Dummett put up a good fight - literally, in some cases - my favourite dismissal occurred some 4,500 miles away in front of a comparatively measly crowd.

Clinton Drew Dempsey was born on March 9, 1983, in Nacogdoches, Texas. He broke into the professional game in 2004, picked eighth overall by the New England Revolution in the MLS SuperDraft, before earning a multi-million dollar move across the Atlantic to Fulham. In six years at Craven Cottage, the highlight was a run to the 2010 Europa League final - the United States international contributing a magical winner against Juventus in the round-of-16 - while Dempsey netted an outstanding 23 goals in all competitions in his final season with the club. Unsurprisingly, this form caught the attention of big-spending Tottenham Hotspur, but his performances were not quite so spectacular in North London. A transfer back to MLS was soon on the cards, Dempsey choosing to join the Seattle Sounders.

Now playing for an ambitious ownership group in the Pacific Northwest, Dempsey was to have a key role for the Sounders. "Clint is a proven winner, a leader and a competitor who we believe will raise the bar for this organisation on and off the field," said general manager Adrian Hanauer as he unveiled the new signing. In his first full campaign back in the MLS in 2014, Dempsey delivered on those promises and led Seattle to a regular season Supporters Shield title, enjoying a devastating 32-goal strike partnership with Obafemi Martins.

If scoring, winning and boosting the franchise's profile were the three stated objectives at CenturyLink Field, though, then a fourth, unofficial, duty was just as important to the supporters: Dempsey, their star man, had to hate the Portland Timbers.

Across the globe, there are players and managers who quickly acclimatise to the passion of local rivalries, regardless of an unassociated birthplace - think Paul Gascoigne in Rome - or Glasgow, or Graeme Souness in Istanbul - or Glasgow. Dempsey, too, 1,800 miles from home, got straight into the swing of things in Cascadia.

The Sounders beat Portland on the Texan's home debut, and he would net five times against the Timbers in 2014. MLS fans may be ridiculed in Europe for their primitive attempts at creating a hostile matchday atmosphere, but the competition between Seattle and their neighbours on derby day is undoubtedly fierce - and it was painful for Dempsey & Co to see their nearest and not-so-dearest win the MLS Cup in 2015. When the Sounders got their own hands on the trophy a year later, the 33-year-old could not hide his delight. "Now that we've won one, Portland can't say shit," Dempsey grinned to a delirious crowd.

The battle for MLS glory has added extra significance to the rivalry, but perhaps its crowning moment occurred in the US Open Cup, before either side had won a post-season title. A game of 120 minutes, four goals and three red cards was a must-watch - for all the wrong, thrilling reasons.

With America's oldest ongoing football tournament regionalised in the early stages, Seattle, the holders and four-time winners, were meeting Portland in the competition for a second consecutive season. Their regular cup clashes, though, along with triannual league fixtures, did little to cool the tension ahead of this fourth round match-up - even if just 4,022 supporters filed into the Sounders' secondary home of the Starfire Sports Stadium on June 16, 2015.

Amid a scrappy opening period, with fouls aplenty, the first yellow card arrived after 20 minutes when a studs-up challenge from Andy Rose brought the Timbers' George Fochive crashing down. Seattle captain Brad Evans followed his team-mate into the book with a late block on Fanendo Adi, but, goalless at half-time, a dull game had offered little hint of the drama to come.

The Sounders re-emerged in a different kit after the interval, swapping black shirts for white, and it immediately became clear that the action, too, would contrast that of the first half.

Within three minutes of the restart, Portland were in front as Diego Valeri toed Rodney Wallace's back-post cross over the line. That breakthrough prompted Seattle to come forward, and Adam Kwarasey parried well from Martins' curling strike before springing up to deny Lamar Neagle on the rebound. Norberto Paparatto was the first Timber to be cautioned, dragging Neagle to the ground, while Kwarasey made another crucial stop to keep out Aaron Kovar. Rose fired straight at the goalkeeper and Martins drilled wide as the Sounders continued to build momentum, but they were dealt a major blow in the 69th minute.

Evans, frustrated with referee Daniel Radford following an unpunished entanglement moments earlier, slipped as Portland countered and then fouled Jorge Villafana. Still riled, a second gesture towards the official was greeted by a second yellow card and a red for the Seattle skipper.

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid responded by calling Dempsey from the bench, but it was Martins who soon forced an equaliser from Neagle's corner. However, mere seconds after the home side had made their final substitution, in the 84th minute, the Nigeria international twisted into a challenge with Darlington Nagbe and took a knock. Martins was stretchered off the field in obvious pain, continuing to undergo treatment pitchside and leaving Seattle with just nine men heading into extra-time.

Portland, unsurprisingly, dominated against a makeshift 4-2-2 formation, and, although Troy Perkins made smart saves from both Villafana and Nagbe, Wallace restored the visitors' lead from close range with 100 minutes on the clock. Jack Jewsbury and Taylor Peay became the second and third Timbers to go into the book, for a hack on Oniel Fisher and for time-wasting, respectively, but it would be further indiscipline from the Sounders that ensured that this game would live long in the memory.

With time running out for the hosts, Michael Azira's lax touch from a Dylan Remick pass ran to Maximiliano Urruti and then Gaston Fernandez in the middle of the pitch. Rushing to make amends for his error, the Seattle midfielder caught Fernandez. The contact appeared minimal, but, with nearby Portland players quick to appeal, referee Radford did not hesitate and flashed a red card in Azira's direction. With the Sounders now down to eight men, Tyrone Mears was first on the scene to protest an apparently harsh call. It was Dempsey, though, who took matters - literally - into his own hands.

Storming towards Radford, who was busy explaining his decision to Rose, Dempsey swiped the referee's notebook from his hands and cast it to the floor. Taken aback by this unexpected development, Radford reached, once more, for his yellow card, but the Seattle man wasn't finished there. Without so much as a glance at the official, Dempsey picked up the notebook and tore it to shreds, seeing red in more ways than one as he was shown another card. The Texan initially appeared to be taking an apathetic approach to this lost cause, but then rounded on the referee.

Jewsbury and Portland team-mate Nat Borchers sympathetically blocked Dempsey's path to Radford, before Mears and Chad Marshall dragged the fuming forward away. Making sure to clap sarcastically as he passed the linesman, Dempsey finally followed Azira down the touch-line.

Poor Ross Fletcher, the Sounders commentator, struggled to make sense of what he was seeing: "Dempsey has now been given a red card as well, has he? Dempsey argued and got a yellow, and then the card came out again. I believe Clint Dempsey has been sent off. Seattle are down to seven. Dempsey won't let it lie. Tyrone Mears is pushing him away, because he wants to get at the referee. Chad Marshall is also trying to get at him. These final few minutes are ending in absolute chaos. Seattle have had three players sent off. Obafemi Martins was stretchered off and unable to continue. Azira and Dempsey have both gone. I have never, ever seen a finish like this in my life."

As the dust settled, and the boos from the home crowd continued, Kwarasey and Borchers assisted Radford in counting the seven remaining Seattle players - the minimum number required to fulfil the match. The Sounders supporters split, some leaving, others staying to abuse the referee, while, on the pitch, a 3-3-0 formation sought a leveller. Four minutes from time, though, Urruti's low strike trundled under Perkins' body, and that was that - but not before the home crowd had to be discouraged from throwing objects at the Timbers bench.

In the fallout, appraisals of Radford's display were predictably unsparing. "I didn't want to get thrown out, so I walked away," Schmid said. "I was maybe going to choke a referee so I walked away before I did something stupid. Last year, at the end of the game, [Portland coach] Caleb [Porter] said it was the worst refereeing he'd ever seen - well, I think it was topped. I thought our guys played like lions. I felt they left their heart out on the field and I think they got robbed."

Dempsey, meanwhile, was handed a two-year ban from the competition by US Soccer, plus a fine, on top of the MLS's three-match suspension. The latter caused the Seattle star to miss a 4-1 league defeat at Portland, but he netted twice in his next appearance against the Timbers, a 3-1 win, just over a year later. A heart issue caused Dempsey to miss the end of the 2016 season, as the Sounders lifted the MLS Cup, but he made his return in a friendly on February 4, 2017 - against Portland.

Should he regain form and fitness, there's plenty of time to run on the Dempsey versus Timbers narrative. Surely, though, nothing will top that night at Starfire.

By IBWM writer Ben Spratt. Header image credit goes fully to Jim Culp

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